From The Faculty Chair
Worrying About Others: Notes on the Unfolding Financial Crisis
It is but expected that faculty at all ranks will be deeply concerned about the impact of the current financial crisis on their personal finances. Likely they are also concerned about the Institute’s overall financial health, and how that would affect the quality of their lives, personally as well professionally. Such concerns pervade through all ranks of faculty: senior faculty over the age of 60 are concerned about the shrinking of their retirement savings; others are concerned whether annual salary increases will be frozen. There is some anxiety over whether the increasing federal budget deficit is likely to influence the availability of federally sponsored research; and whether research support from private industry, which has been on the rise for the last five years, will decline.
I have heard concerns from junior faculty with the rank of assistant professor or associate professor without tenure who worry about the impact of the financial crisis on the prospects for tenurability. The cost of childcare remains a key concern to junior faculty; they worry that if the current financial situation does not improve funds for building new child care facilities will not be available, nor will there be funds to subsidize child care costs. Such anxieties take on a different level of intensity for non-tenure-track faculty, who are most susceptible to budget cuts at all universities. At MIT, the President, Provost, and other senior members of the administration have urged the faculty not to panic, because the Institute is now in a relatively good position vis-à-vis, say, five years ago. Still, faculty are concerned, as they should be, when they check their retirement accounts or read in the news about the steady decline of the general economy and how other top ranking universities are responding to the fiscal crisis.
Although it is natural to be concerned about one’s own financial well-being at times such as these, we must acknowledge that as faculty – particularly those on tenure track – we are less vulnerable than many others within the larger MIT community.
Take the students, for example, who must rely on financial assistance based on the financial status of their families. Since family incomes are likely to decline – through job loss or drops in investment income – many of our students may face financial difficulties. Even though the Offices of the Deans of Undergraduate and Graduate Education are equipped to deal with some fluctuations in financial need, if the magnitude of the problem becomes significantly large the Institute will have difficulty bridging the gap in financial aid. For international students, who rely on loans from banks, this problem may become even more acute as lenders terminate loan programs previously geared towards students attending top ranking universities, such as MIT.
These sorts of situations are likely to increase student anxiety. As Chief of MIT Mental Health Services Alan Siegal advised me recently, some students even may begin to feel guilty for creating hardship for their families. As faculty, we need to be aware of such plausible outcomes as we interact with students both in the classroom and as advisors. In general, MIT faculty do not spend much time advising students; and most advising at MIT is limited to discussions of academic performance and course choices. Still, if Alan Siegel is right, the faculty now needs to spend a little more time advising students, and inquiring – without violating the students’ sense of privacy, of course – whether the students’ performance is being affected by financial worries.
Some faculty may not know how to structure such a conversation, if a student shows signs of anxiety or depression; after all most of us do not know the financial situations of our students, and also may not be aware of different financial options available to them. That is why it is important to have departmental discussions where all faculty can be informed about various resources – including counseling – which are available at MIT, and a general awareness of students’ financial problems must be inculcated in the faculty so they can serve as empathetic and wise advisors, and not as individuals who simply sign the students’ registration forms once each semester.
A second group within the MIT community who needs the faculty’s care and concern now more than ever is the support staff – who are rightly anxious that their jobs will be first in line for cuts if the Institute is forced to restructure because of budgetary problems.
At first glance, the support staff may not seem as essential to faculty as, say, their research and teaching assistants; but, as we learned, painfully, during the early 1990s when MIT tried to re-engineer itself, the support staff’s contribution to faculty productivity is essential. So it is important now for faculty to ask the reverse question: What affects staff productivity?; as well as how are these individuals dealing with financial uncertainties that are likely to be more severe than our own? In these lean times recognition of appreciation for their assistance (even a simple “thank you”) can go a long way toward lifting and maintaining morale.
MIT’s Human Resources office, under the leadership of Alison Alden, can serve as a resource for faculty members who have questions about assisting staff members through anxious times. The departmental administrative officers can also advise the faculty regarding organizational processes and interpersonal communications, which may be necessary to reduce uncertainties, anxieties, and misunderstandings.
In sum: We are witnessing a period of unprecedented financial problems that is likely to affect all institutions, including the ones with large assets. Fortunately, educational institutions such as our own are likely to become more, not less, important to society even if the financial problems worsen. Since no one really knows how our economic future is likely to unfold, what we are ultimately left with is a moral choice: either we can withdraw into our self-protecting emotional and financial cocoons, or we can contribute to the strengthening of the MIT community by caring for our students and staff. This is the moment that will test how much we really do care about the MIT community.